Congressional Action Needed to Boost Efforts to Expand Broadband Access

State leaders call for permitting reform, interagency coordination, and sustainability of Affordable Connectivity Program

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Congressional Action Needed to Boost Efforts to Expand Broadband Access
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The federal infrastructure bill enacted in late 2021 included resources and funding requirements to significantly narrow the gap between American households that have access to affordable, high-speed internet and those that do not. Although much of the implementation effort is in the hands of state governments, Congress’ work on expanding broadband access is far from over.

In February, The Pew Charitable Trusts brought together state broadband leaders and congressional staffers to discuss priorities for the coming year and the importance of collaboration among all levels of government. State officials identified four key challenges that could derail implementation of federal funds: financial due diligence requirements, federal permitting processes, limited interagency coordination, and the need for sustainable funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the ACP provides eligible households with discounts on broadband services and connected devices.

The discussion highlighted that state policymakers can offer valuable insights to federal lawmakers looking to better align programs at all levels to accelerate progress toward universally available and affordable broadband service.

For example, while speakers praised Congress and the U.S. Department of Commerce for taking important steps to ensure that entities receiving grants from the legislation’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program can demonstrate financial solvency, they also flagged potential issues. Those entities include communities and internet service providers (ISPs).

Such due diligence helps protect taxpayer funds, but state leaders fear that some requirements may unintentionally exclude eligible entities from participating. For example, required letters of credit can represent a significant cost for smaller providers, while publicly owned networks may not be able to receive them at all.

State officials also stressed the importance of federal permitting reform, such as efforts to avoid duplication of environmental reviews across agencies. As Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) noted in a December 2022 letter to the secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, the length of time it takes for permits to be approved can discourage efforts to boost broadband service to rural communities. And that then could discourage providers from participating in BEAD and increase the cost of construction, particularly as supply chains adjust to increasing costs and the surge in demand linked to the influx in federal funding for broadband.

Panelists also said states face difficulties tracking broadband funding across the federal government; 15  agencies administer more than 100 programs related to broadband access, making interagency cooperation a persistent challenge. These programs often have different purposes, timelines, and requirements for funding and reporting.

Why does this matter? States must submit planning documents to demonstrate readiness for BEAD funding and their plans need to reflect awards across federal agencies. Such reporting is supposed to protect against the misuse and duplication of federal funding by declaring certain areas as “served,” but the requirement presents a challenge for states: Awards are not made on a consistent schedule and federal agencies do not alert states to notify them of local awards.

For example, while several Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grants, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), are still under review, states and communities may be uncertain whether they could be considered ineligible for funding under BEAD. Additionally, RDOF allows up to eight years to complete construction networks—four years more than BEAD’s construction timeline.

Speakers also called on Congress to ensure that ACP remains funded. The program, which provides critical subsidies to help low-income households and providers in what are defined as high-cost areas, is currently projected to run out of funds by March 2024, when most states will be readying their processes for awarding BEAD grants. But the statute is clear: States can award BEAD funds only to providers that participate in ACP.

More importantly, failure to fund ACP would mean the end of a mechanism that targets those with the greatest need in areas that are more costly to serve. In fact, a 2022 report by Common Sense Media found that ACP should decrease the need for deployment subsidies by 25%. Without congressional action, states could lose the most significant tool available to ensure that high speed internet access is available and affordable in the nation’s hardest-to-serve communities.

Finally, state representatives urged Congress and federal agencies to consider when or how requirements may dilute the strength of the BEAD statute, which reflects the adage that “there is no one size fits all” in closing the digital divide. BEAD offers state policymakers the flexibility they need to meet the challenges unique to their communities. That includes a requirement that states allow the full range of for-profit and nonprofit ISPs to participate in the program without exclusions that could keep some from taking part.

Lawmakers in Washington can and should do more to ensure that progress continues and more Americans get broadband access. For example, they should review the requirement for letters of credit that can make it hard for smaller ISPs to access federal dollars. They also should enact proposed legislation from Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) that would exclude the federal grants from providers’ taxable income and ensure that for-profit ISPs receive the full benefit of these grant dollars.

Congress should be applauded for charting a new path on federal broadband policy in recent years, but work remains. Drafters of the BEAD program intended to address the limitations and failures of earlier federal initiatives. They wanted to provide states with the authority and flexibility to design programs that meet their needs, geographies, and ISP footprints. As lawmakers know well: Maine is not South Dakota, and state policymakers need flexibility to account for that.

Federal standards establish a higher standard for all states to start from, but states from coast to coast need Congress to protect the adaptability afforded by the BEAD program. With such steps, they can play a crucial role in ensuring that the IIJA investments achieve the needed results and help more Americans get access to essential broadband services.

Kathryn de Wit directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.

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